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WRTG 105 Questions of Travel (S Murray)

What are primary sources?

Primary sources are documents or physical objects created at the time historical events occurred or well after events in the form of memoirs and oral histories. Examples include:

  • ORIGINAL DOCUMENTS (excerpts or translations acceptable): Diaries, speeches, manuscripts, letters, interviews, news film footage, autobiographies, official records 
  • CREATIVE WORKS: Poetry, drama, novels, music, art 
  • RELICS OR ARTIFACTS: Pottery, furniture, clothing, buildings
    (e.g. Desert and the Sown by Gertrude Bell and a Letter from Gertrude Bell to her stepmother).

Secondary sources interpret and analyze primary sources. These sources are one or more steps removed from the event. Secondary sources may have pictures, quotes or graphics of primary sources in them.  Examples include: Textbooks, journal articles, histories, criticisms, commentaries, and encyclopedias (e.g. Travel and Travel Writing: An Historical Overview of Hodoeporics and Women's archaeology? Political feminism, gender theory and historical revision). 


Image: British author and archeologist Gertrude Bell age 41, in Babylon, Iraq, 1909. Retrieved from http://gertrudebell.ncl.ac.uk/photo_details.php?photo_id=3059 {{PD-US}}

Analyzing primary sources

Analyzing a Single Source

When reading a primary source it is important to look at not just it's contents, but an item's physicality.  Here are some guiding questions to answer as you examine a primary source:

  1. Look at the physical nature of your source. What can you learn from the medium of the source? (Was it written on fancy paper in elegant handwriting, or on scrap-paper, scribbled in pencil? Typed?) What does this tell you?
  2. Think about the purpose of the source. What was the author's message or argument? What were they trying to get across? Is the message explicit, or are there implicit messages as well?
  3. What do you know about the author? Race, class, occupation, religion, age, region, political beliefs? Does any of this matter? How?
  4. Who constituted the intended audience? Was this source meant for one person's eyes, or for the public? 
  5. What attitude towards the subject matter/event does the creator of the item seem to impart? (e.g. What tone is set? Are there interesting word choices and what might the author's choice in their use mean? Why was it created and what purpose did it originally serve? What biases may inherently or intentionally exist in it?).
  6. Is it prescriptive (telling you what people thought should happen) or descriptive (telling you what people thought did happen)?
  7. What historical questions can you answer using this source? 
  8. What questions can this source NOT help you answer? What are the limitations of this type of source?

Analyzing a Set of Sources

Guiding Questions:

  1. What questions do I have from examining these materials as a set?  What are the similarities? How do they differ? What greater inferences can be drawn about the about historical context from the set?
  2. What questions or further research might you have? (e.g. Are there thoughts or ideas that could be defined or explained? Is there specialized language or jargon? Are there references to places, events, or people, culture, etc?).
  3. What other primary sources might I look for to help round out the story behind the sources you currently have?
  4. What ideological theories or philosophies can be applied to the item?
  5. How might I compare these sources to other readings and assignments in this course?

Digital Primary Source Collections


Women and Gender

Forced Migration & Displacement

Governments Abroad